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Roberts pushes for judiciary’s continued independence in year-end report

By Ariane de Vogue, CNN Supreme Court Reporter

Chief Justice John Roberts stressed the importance of the judiciary’s institutional independence Friday in an annual report that comes as the Supreme Court is considering some of the most important issues of the day, and critics are seeking to dilute the court’s conservative majority.

Roberts did not directly address the term’s explosive docket that includes cases on the future of Roe v. Wade, the Biden administration’s vaccine mandates and the expansion of gun rights, but he emphasized the need to insulate the courts from what he called “inappropriate political influence.”

“Decisional independence is essential to due process, promoting impartial decision-making, free from political or other extraneous influence,” he wrote.

Besides his duties on the high court, Roberts presides over the Judicial Conference, a body responsible for making policy regarding the administration of the courts and releases a report each New Year’s Eve on the state of the judiciary.

Friday’s report was ostensibly aimed at matters closely related to the court’s internal administration, but it was carefully crafted to make clear that the court’s ability to manage its own affairs is vital, Roberts said, to “safeguarding and fortifying the independence of the Branch.”

The justices are currently on their winter recess, but they will return in one week to hear expedited oral arguments concerning the Biden administration’s attempts to impose requirements to combat the resurgence of Covid-19. Behind closed doors, the justices are also mulling a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and another case that could expand the reach of Second Amendment protections.

Roberts did not mention a recent study, commissioned by President Joe Biden, to explore court reform, or proposals from progressives to add more members to the bench and impose term limits, but he said the political branches should stay out of the court’s internal workings.

“The Judiciary’s power to manage its internal affairs insulates courts from inappropriate political influence and is crucial to preserving public trust in its work as a separate and co-equal branch of government,” he said.

He noted that 2022 will mark the centennial of the creation of the Judicial Conference and said its role has “never been more vital.”

Besides dealing with issues having to do with the pandemic and cybersecurity, Roberts highlighted other areas that he said would receive the attention of the Judicial Conference in the coming months.

They include a renewed focus on the recusal obligations of judges from cases that involve companies in which a judge may own stock. Roberts nodded to a Wall Street Journal report from September detailing incidents when judges had failed to appropriately recuse themselves in violation of ethics rules.

“Let me be crystal clear,” Roberts said, “the Judiciary takes this matter seriously.” He also provided an update on inappropriate behavior in the judicial workplace, a topic that had been the subject of previous reports. He said that a working group consisting of judges and senior administrators had made recommendations to revise codes of conduct, streamline internal procedures aimed at identifying misconduct and expand training programs.

Roberts repeatedly referred to former President William Howard Taft, who also served as Chief Justice of the United States from 1921-1930.

“He understood that criticism of the courts is inevitable, and he lived through an era when federal courts faced strident calls for reform, some warranted and some not,” Roberts said.

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